In Nigeria, beauty is in the eye of the storm
Despite threats of a boycott, organizers said Friday that Miss World will go on.
LAGOS, NIGERIA — At the Skin Deep beauty clinic, managing director Vera Ohwofa is a symbol of the tension between the country's Westernized elite and some of its fundamentalist Islamic politicians.
Ms. Ohwofa, whose smart fourth-floor salon offers treatments ranging from $3 eyebrow tints to $320 hand exfoliations, is worried about the possible cancellation of the Miss World beauty pageant to be held in the capital, Abuja, in November. At least a half-dozen contestants from Europe and parts of Africa have threatened to withdraw, citing concerns about a sentence of death by stoning confirmed on a young Nigerian woman by a northern Muslim court last month.
"If the contestants don't come to some [resolution], it's best they stay away," Ms. Ohwofa says. "But it will be really painful not to have them around."
Ohwofa's fears highlight a dilemma faced by the government of President Olusegun Obasanjo: how to reconcile Nigeria's pretensions to secular government and freedom of expression with the Islamic legal codes in force across the country's north. The irony is that a beauty pageant, itself often seen as a symbol of sexism, is focusing international attention on a brutal form of sexual discrimination against Muslim women.
"Evidently, Nigeria is not showing to the world how much she loves her women," Morenike Taire, a female columnist in Nigeria's Vanguard newspaper, wrote last week. "Political implications apart, any self-respecting woman would be repulsed at the idea of showing off the full glory of her womanhood in a country where womanhood is being so abused,"
The trouble over Miss World began after last month's confirmation of the death sentence imposed in March on Amina Lawal, a young woman from the northern state of Katsina, for having sex outside of marriage. The judgment was handed down by a court applying a severe version of sharia, or Islamic law, which has been adopted by a third of Nigeria's 36 states over the past few years.
The decision, one of a number of stoning sentences passed in northern Nigeria but yet to be carried out, triggered heavy criticism from Western governments and international human rights groups. Miss World contestants from Switzerland, Belgium, France, Ivory Coast, Kenya, and Norway plan a boycott, while other country representatives have attacked the stoning sentence and say they are deciding whether to attend.
The Miss World Organization says it has no plans to pull out of Nigeria and directs reporters to a Nigerian Foreign Ministry press release posted on its web site (www.missworld.org). The statement, which comes amid accusations that the government won't confront the politically powerful northern promoters of sharia, says the constitutionality of the stoning judgment has yet to be tested. "The Nigerian government has never undermined the rights of its citizens and will not look away when these rights are threatened," the statement says. "[I]n the history of justice in Nigeria, no woman has ever been punished in such dastardly manner ... and this will not be an exception."
Julia Morley, chairman of Miss World Organization, says the statement reassures her that the government is committed to upholding human rights. She says the Miss World competition, which has run for 52 years and claims to be the world's most watched annual event, will not be influenced by the actions of the sharia courts, as they are unrepresentative of the vast majority of Nigerians.
The contest, she says, is a further step toward improving the image of the country after the victory of Agbani Darego, a Nigerian, in last year's competition. "I think it would be a huge shame to allow one small group of people to determine what we do in this world," Ms. Morley says. "Nigeria is trying to put [itself] right."
Observers question Morley's faith in the human rights record of the government of President Obasanjo, who has toured the world since his election in 1999 in an attempt to rebuild his country's poor international reputation following 15 years of military rule. Members of the country's Parliament, who are trying to force Obasanjo from office, have prepared an impeachment indictment blaming him for the killings of hundreds of civilians by the Army in Bayelsa state in 1999 and in Benue state last year. The president has defended the operations as a legitimate response to attacks on security personnel.
The final twist to the Miss World dispute is that many proponents of sharia would see the cancellation of the contest as a positive development rather than a punishment. Muslim organizations in Nigeria have already attacked the contest for its focus on female beauty and alleged lack of modesty.
Ohwofa says she is hopeful the problems over Miss World will be resolved, adding that she and a friend are looking to use the contest to promote some of their beauty products.
"November is still a long time away," she reflects. "Trust Nigeria we will put everything in place."